Riffology 113 – All Your Sins

As promised, we return to normal format for this lesson, covering just one tune. The tune in question is “All Your Sins” by Maryland doom metal godfathers Pentagram.

“All Your Sins” comes from Pentagram’s self-titled 1985 debut (re-christened Relentless for later re-issues). As many now know, thanks in no small part to Relapse’s excellent First Daze Here compilations, Pentagram was kicking around for almost fifteen years before finally releasing an official full-length album. The Pentagram that released that debut, however, was a far different band from the one featured on First Daze Here. The Pentagram of 1985 had its roots in Death Row, a band formed by Guitarist Victor Griffin and bassist Martin Swaney. Death Row was a much heavier and more explicitly metallic band than the rock-based Pentagram of the 1970’s. When Bobby Liebling and Joe Hasslevander joined in the early eighties, Death Row changed its name to Pentagram. Though this version of the band would record some of the original group’s material, Victor Griffin was the primary songwriter, and to put it bluntly, Victor brought the fucking doom.

Case in point:

You can never win

Pay for all your sins

So goes the chorus of this track. But long before hearing those lines, we are served notice of our hopeless plight via the main riff, which enters at 0:03. This riff is the musical equivalent of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up and up and up, only to have it come crashing down again and again and again. There are two key techniques we will discuss that make this riff so oppressive: the first is the tuning, and the second is Victor Griffin’s choice of notes.

In the “Forensic Clinicism / The Sanguine Article” lesson, we discussed in depth the history of down-tuning in metal, but this tune slipped through the cracks. “All Your Sins” is tuned three whole steps below standard tuning. For reference, that is twice as far below standard pitch as Black Sabbath tracks such as “Into the Void” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and a half step lower even than heavy weights such as Crowbar and Carcass regularly tune. I believe, such a low tuning was unprecedented in metal in 1985, but I’ve been wrong before. At any rate, it is a very low tuning that gives the riff a lot of heft. And when combined with distortion and double-tracking, it creates a lot of over tones, giving the illusion of harmony, when in fact the majority of the riff is played with single notes.

The “All Your Sins” main theme is a two measure riff and is composed of two phrases. The first phrase is the money shot, and it is repeated three times. The second phrase functions as a sort of turnaround, capping the riff off, while simultaneously leading into another repetition. The first phrase is a five note figure, composed of four individual notes: B-flat, B, E-flat and E. B-flat and E-flat both feature in the songs key of B-flat minor, but they are also both found in B-flat major, so by themselves they are tonally neutral.

The other two notes, B and E, are found in neither B-flat major nor B-flat minor, but they are far from tonally neutral; no, tonally, they are chaotic evil. In the key of B-flat, E is (you know it’s coming) the dreaded diminished fifth! The other note, B, in this key, is the minor second. The minor second doesn’t have quite the same reputation as the diminished fifth, but in terms of dissonance and “evilness” it is every bit the diminished fifth’s equal, if not its superior. The two are sort of like the Hitler and Stalin of dissonance. This one-two punch of aural evil imbues the “All Your Sins” riff with a sense of dread and despair fully in keeping with the track’s theme.

The seventies version of Pentagram has finally gotten its due, some thirty years too late, with bands such as Witchcraft, Graveyard, Noctum and others citing the band as an influence, but the 80’s version sent its own ripples of influence through the doom community. Legendary doom act Cathedral, in fact, covered “All Your Sins” on its 1990 demo, In Mourning. So deep was Cathedral’s admiration for Pentagram that the group asked Victor Griffin to join the band, which he did for a brief period. Unfortunately, Victor’s alcoholism put a quick end to what could have been an amazing collaboration. Happily, Victor is clean now and still churning out doom with his band Place of Skulls and with a revamped Pentagram.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with Cathedral’s version of “All Your Sins”. I daresay the band never sounded heavier.


Post your favorite Pentagram riff in the comments.

Required Listening:

Pentagram – Relentless

Extra Credit:

Learn to play “All Yor Sins”*

*The tuning indicated in the tab is incorrect. To match the recording, tune all strings down three whole steps. Low to high: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F, Bb

Posted by Jeremy Morse

Riffs or GTFO.

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